Fording the Atmospheric River
There is an upwelling — a river of sadness upwelling in my abdomen. I feel the cold splash, the gulp for air, the slipping under the surface. Every cell is too heavy, drenched, drowning. My head is heavy, like I’m carrying a 20-pound sack of grain on my head. My mouth pulls down at the corners.
I’m thinking of my friend and her soft, blonde hair; her musical laughter. I’m thinking of her dead son. He was only 29. He had a mental illness. In the midst of a psychosis, he stepped in front of a train.
That happens on the Peninsula — suicide by train. It happened to my friend’s son on Wednesday. Someone Else called to tell me on Friday. She said police had gone by the house. I could see my friend and her husband answering the door together, the officers standing on the porch in their dark uniforms; hear the sound of their equipment jangling on their belts.
Afterwards, the neighbors had come with food and comfort. I was glad of that — the comfort. That wouldn’t have happened to us, if it had been our son.
When I get the call, I start crying. When I hang up, I don’t stop.
“What happened?” my husband asks from his workbench. Our little dining area has no table. Instead, it’s stuffed with tools, scraps of wood, things he’s making and fixing — a record player, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a tiny trolley on a balsa wood San Francisco street, complete with overhead electric wires. I love to see him at work there, bent over a project, humming.
He takes the news like a blow to the stomach: “Jesus Christ!”
I don’t go to him. I don’t embrace him or collapse into his chest. He puts his feelings in a tight box and buries it distant. I don’t pry open the box. I don’t force him to pry it. I consider him fragile. I try to protect him. I sandbag the levees; feel the water rise from abdomen to chest.
It isn’t until that night in bed, after he starts snoring, that I let the tears and snot stream out through my nostrils. Underneath the wool blanket, pressed skin to skin against his warm back, I shudder gently, gulp carefully for air.
We have a “child,” too, a young man who struggles, who gets taken to the hospital, who draws police to our door. The sadness I’m swimming in isn’t just for my friend and her family. There are currents beneath that. Rip tides. Whirlpools. Tsunamis. I’m on the shore, and in the water, and getting sucked under, getting pounded by big waves on the rough, sandy floor.
On Saturday I call my spiritual director. I call my sister. I call Someone Else. They soothe me. Sister Carmen says “God scooped him up, made him whole, brought him home.” I call my friend. She says she believes that. “Why not believe that? We don’t know.”
On Sunday, I drink too much at a party. Monday morning I’m swamped with anxiety, upset. If I am fording a river of sadness, then the liquor has poisoned the water, churned up the toxic mud on the bottom. Now the river is wider, the crossing more difficult. Now the water is choppy and filled with debris.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I still struggle against the current, still ride on a rickety raft. Then on the second Saturday, I watch a short feature on psychiatrist Carl Jung. A landing comes into view.
Jung agreed with my friend. This world-famous doctor, great thinker and contemporary of Freud, said it’s not possible to prove God exists, yet he chose to believe.
“The human intellect can never answer this question. Still less give any proof of god. Moreover, such proof is superfluous. For the idea of an all powerful divine being is present everywhere, unconsciously if not consciously because it is an archetype. I therefore consider it wiser to acknowledge the idea of god consciously,” he wrote. Over the door to his home and office in Zurich, Jung chiseled this inscription: “Whether called upon or not, God will be present.”
I think my friend’s son would have liked Jung, who worked in mental hospitals with people in psychosis. There were even six years when Jung had psychoses of his own, struggled with visions sprung from his unconscious, drawing them in The Red Book.
Later, Jung spent much time alone, at a retreat on a lake which he called The Tower. There, he nurtured his connection to nature. “At times, I feel as if I’m spread out over the landscape, and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the clouds, in the procession of the seasons,” he wrote.
And that becomes my rescue — the idea that we are more than individual lives. Those are the words I hear on the second Sunday when I finally scramble out of the river, park my raft on the shore, and walk on.